Scott Belcher shares his thoughts about the current state of transportation technology
Having managed ITS America for seven years, the Telecommunications Industry Association for another two, and consulted for cloud and new technology companies in the space, I have been blessed with a unique perch from which to view the changes in the smart transportation industry. Here are a few big picture observations.
- Protected Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) Seems Highly Unlikely. The 5.9 GHz spectrum was at risk two and a half years ago. It took a herculean effort to get a proposed rule on connected vehicles out in the waning days of the Obama With its aversion to moving forward with anything the last Administration proposed, it appears that the Trump Administration will likely let the rule languish. This seems even more likely with the absence of vocal CEOs visiting Secretary Chao and advocating for its continued protection, 5G looming in the horizon, and a slate of incoming Federal Communications Commission Commissioners that are opposed to continuing to protect it.
Where does this leave us with 5.9? In a holding pattern. While many OEMs still see DSRC providing real near-term safety opportunities as well as a bridge to 5G, uncertainty makes it difficult for them to invest the serious resources necessary to make it a reality. The same is true of state and local governments. Should they be installing DSRC radios when they upgrade their traffic signals? Right now, doing so is a risky bet. Not only is the dedicated spectrum at risk but so is the US$1bn plus that has been invested so far in research. Even with this uncertainty, research and incremental deployment will continue, just not at the rate that it would have if there were an unwavering commitment to DSRC by all of the players.
- Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Continues to Be a Challenge. While there is great hype, more companies entering the space than ever, and great progress being made, Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicle deployment is still a way off. Inconsistent state rules, privacy, liability, and data volumes are all very real challenges. Addressing these challenges is made worse by the fact that we still have three industry verticals that seem to be struggling to understand the needs and cultures of the others (i.e., OEMs, new technology and communications).
What about all those miles being logged on the roads by autonomous vehicles? It is absolutely critical research. Companies like Waymo and General Motors are continuing to discover and solve new technical challenges every day. The policy issues remain, but the last few months have seen Congress begin to weigh in and we are all holding out hope for further guidance from the Administration. If connectivity is required, our current communications infrastructure will not support the data volumes that we are talking about. Estimates are that connected and autonomous vehicles produce between one and three terabytes of data an hour. Moving and analyzing this data will overwhelm our current system.
- It is All Happening at the Edge. In my opinion, we are only now beginning to understand the amount of data that will need to be moved and processed to successfully implement connected and autonomous vehicles. Imagine if there are hundreds of autonomous vehicles communicating with the cloud at the same time. Granted, not all of this data will be mission critical or even relevant, but we will need to make that determination in fractions of a second. We will not be able to afford multiple hops on a network to get to a server farm, or multiple distributed server farms, and back. This means that the transportation industry will need to understand and partner with companies involved in artificial intelligence, cloud, machine-to-machine, and edge computing. These evolving computing technologies, along with new communications technologies like Network Functions Virtualization, Software Defined Networks and multiprotocol and cognitive radios will provides opportunities and solutions not previously envisioned.
State and local governments will also be key players in this dance. The carriers and their infrastructure providers will need as much fiber as they can lay their hands on to move this data. They will also need locations for their small cells as they seek to densify the wireless network to meet the needs of autonomous vehicles, Smart Cities and 5G. State and local governments are sitting on thousands of miles of fiber and real estate to support small cells. There could be some interesting “win-win” opportunities as autonomous vehicles become a reality.
- Proprietary Hardware and Software are a Thing of the Past. Smart operators, whether they are public or private, are moving away from proprietary hardware and software solutions. For example, in their zeal to cut unnecessary costs, AT&T and Verizon are moving away from proprietary hardware and software solutions that limits their ability to regularly upgrade and change support vendors. White boxes and open source software are becoming more common. Transportation operators are feeling the same economic pressure. As a result, we are starting to see bridge solutions in the form of cloud-based enterprise platforms that enable operators to integrate their multiple legacy systems at a higher level and not be captured or constrained by individual vendors or individual solutions.
With this new creativity, the transportation industry will soon move to open solutions development. Organizations like the Open Source Software Institute or the Lynux Foundation are providing open source problem solving that can be more creative and cost effective than much of our current software development practices. Companies like Google, Best Buy, AT&T and PayPal all regularly use open source software development as an important tool in solving their most challenging problems. Adopting this practice will likely become more commonplace in the transportation industry and will further spur innovation.
The transportation technology space has gone through massive changes over the past five years. We are now dealing with new technologies, new entrants and new attitudes that are not necessarily aligned with our tried and true methods. Survival has required the ability to be nimble, adapt and partner. Those who have not adjusted have been left behind. Going forward, the only thing that we know with any certainty is that the level of change will only accelerate and that those that cannot keep up will not survive.
Scott Belcher is President and CEO of SFB Consulting, LLC